Written by John Llewellyn Probert
Published by Spectral Press
A madman is loose on the streets of Bristol, exacting elaborate vengeance on a chosen few in British small publisher Spectral Press’ latest novella: John Llewellyn Probert’s tribute to Vincent Price by way of Grand Guignol rollercoaster, The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine.
When a burning body is discovered hanging by a chain from Clifton Suspension Bridge, stereotypically weary Detective Inspector Jeffrey Longdon and his partner, Sergeant Jenny Newham, find themselves on the trail of a ruthless killer subjecting his prey to ever more theatrical demises based on happenings found in the cinematic oeuvre of the great Vincent Price. As expected with this kind of whodunit fare, as the sleuths close in on their man and his motives, they find themselves settling firmly in the firing line – or rather, reaching into the proverbial hat – to discover just which Corman-esque departure the villainous Dr. Valentine has lined up for anyone who gets in his way…
Structurally, The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine plays out exactly as expected: Cops arrive to the first murder scene, begin their investigation and gradually uncover clues while our victim-to-be bit players show up occasionally and meet their ends by various methods. Along the way we have a surprise revelation or two, and even a touch of Hammer-esque grimness to spice things up. The success here is just how well Probert treats his material; he knows exactly what he’s doing, and he isn’t afraid to have fun with it either. Part police procedural with a touch of dark thriller and part theatrical excess, this is a tale that whizzes by at a rocketing pace, propelled along by a gleeful writing style filled with both assuredness and a knowing sense of playful lampoonery.
Giving away the exact nature of the deaths here would be to spoil the showpiece, but let’s just say that fans of Price’s filmography will delight in picking out just which ones are coming up – and they may not always be the particular set pieces initially in mind. The killer’s motive is simple, but his planning and resources are limitless, making for the kind of megalomaniacal antagonist who, amidst the finale seen here, one would easily imagine the late cinema legend himself bringing to life on-screen.
In the same sense, The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine feels like a television special that sadly didn’t make it in front of the cameras. Like many of the best specials, it also feels disappointingly short-lived (meeting its end within 83 pages) – if only because of how much fun it is throughout. It’s only realistic that stories relying heavily on a gimmicky theme (be it on paper or film) tend to quickly wear out the joke, and while Probert clearly has the chops to stretch this out further, the choice to keep it to novella length is understandable. Still, the frustration is inevitable when the experience is this damned entertaining.
Devouring it in one sitting is a cert, but Probert’s tale remains a total delight from start to finish – aiming somewhere between the thrilling, the camp and the humourous, The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine lands smack bang in the middle of brilliance. Hell, the death by automated hot air balloon is worth it alone. Highly, highly recommended.